On an expansive farm about 50 minutes west of Cleveland, the Jones family has stealthily become the world’s foremost experts on vegetables.
Just look at their 640-page book: The Chef’s Garden: A Modern Guide to Common and Unusual Vegetables by Farmer Lee Jones and Kristin Donnelly is the encyclopedia of vegetables you didn’t know you needed. The tome compiles more than 30 years of highly specialized knowledge gleaned from gut and grit, trial and error and success and loss on the Jones family’s 350-acre farm in Erie County.
“Farming really is about patience and doing so in harmony with Mother Nature,” says Jones. “My dad had a saying, ‘Make mistakes faster than the competition,’ and so we did!”
Since the family patriarch, Bob Jones, Sr., died late last summer, Jones and his brother Bob Jr. have run a growing portfolio of agricultural businesses that include The Chef’s Garden, a regenerative agriculture farm that cultivates more than 500 vegetable varieties for chefs and restaurants around the country, The Culinary Vegetable Institute, a plant-forward think tank and recipe development center, and a rapidly expanding home delivery service.
Last year, prompted by restaurant closures and other challenges, the family revived a seasonal farm stand a stone’s throw from the fields and hoop houses where some of the most nutrient dense artisanal vegetables on the planet are grown.
The Chef’s Garden book is comprehensive but never onerous; its contents vast but entirely digestible, with more than 100 vegetables and some 500 varieties included.
Each entry includes the plant’s genus and species, a photograph (many contributed by Ohio photographer Michelle Demuth-Bibb) and basic instructions on how to grow or select at the market, how to clean and store and how to prepare. Executive chef-in-residence Jamie Simpson and other culinary team members contributed original recipes that are not likely to be found in any other recipe collection.
Jones’ vegetable guide will appeal to the novice or casual cook just as much as it would to a serial farm market shopper or an accomplished chef. While there is much to discover about items typically viewed as common or mundane, such as celery or lettuce, vegetable wonks will relish in the discovery of unfamiliar new-to-them varieties like the cardoon, an edible wild thistle, spigarello, a leafy brassica with some characteristics of broccoli and kale, and oca, a colorful, starchy tuber of South American origin.
This comprehensive book is meant to be consulted often, perhaps to consider a new way to prepare and serve a specific part of a vegetable, or to glean practical advice on how to cook something less common or familiar like fiddleheads, sunchokes or jicama.
Sustainability is an ever-present theme throughout, reminding us that by using as much of the harvested vegetable as we can, we’re showing respect for the plant and our planet.
We spoke to Farmer Jones to get some additional insight on the book’s creation and process.
Q. What prompted the release of the book at this particular time?
A. We just knew that we had years of knowledge and felt it was time to share what we know and what we’re still learning about regenerative farming. I like to say the book is 40 years in the making. We started the book well before the pandemic. It took us about two years to write the stories, develop and edit the recipes and to gather all of the images you see throughout.
Q. Who is this book for?
A. This book is for anyone with an interest in food, especially vegetables, including growers and gardeners, home cooks, professional chefs and of course “foodies.” We envisioned someone going to a farmer’s market, bringing home something that they were not sure of, and using this book as a reference. We also wanted to tell the story of family farming in the Midwest, the story of our farm and the journey that brought us to where we are today.
Q. You chose to group the vegetables in this book by their parts. Why?
A. That’s how we tend to view vegetables. What we have learned over the years from chefs is that every part of a plant's life offers something unique to the plate. What I see as a farmer may not be what the chef sees, and it is often very different than what the eater sees. Those perspectives definitely changed our thought process over the years. I am sure this book will help you see vegetables a little differently. You’ll actually notice that some vegetables appear more than once in the book.
Q. How important is it for people to understand what goes into growing vegetables?
A. We have a saying on the farm: healthy soil equals healthy plants equals healthy people. We grow our soil first. Without healthy soil, nutrient dense and flavorful vegetables do not exist.
Q. What do people miss or fail to understand about vegetables?
A. Not all vegetables are created equal. My dad would say, ‘Everybody thinks a carrot’s a carrot,’ and that’s the furthest thing from the truth. You can have a carrot that tastes like cardboard and you can have a carrot that is just wonderfully sweet and melts in your mouth. We test every carrot we can find — the competition, grocery store, wherever. We’ve got the best tasting carrot around. We have that now. But we think it can be even better.
Q. How does the book further the mission of The Chef's Garden?
A. The future is plant-forward and this book is a guide to better understand the wide variety of vegetables available to us. It provides a roadmap of recipes to incorporate them into your diet.